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The “Hero” Film: Shot-by-Shot Analysis

The plot of the film “Hero” (2002) by Zhang Yimou unfolds the historical events that took place in the 3rd century B.C., a time before China became a unified nation. The main character, a lone warrior, known as Nameless (Jet Li), was summoned to visit the King of Qin (Chen Daoming) because he claimed to kill the invincible enemies of the king – Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Chueng). As a reward for this achievement, Nameless was allowed to approach the king within ten paces.

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Throughout the film, Yimou uses stylistic counterpoints. On the one hand, there is a dance of the flying sword-bearers, and each of them is possessed by his or her own understanding of honor, duty, and fairness. On the other hand, there is an impersonal imperial war machine that is always ready to crash down millions of arrows on the rebels. Although formally the conflict in “Hero” is constructed in a clear-cut manner, the narrative space in the movie is full of symbols and allegories. The cinema comprises several versions of the legend, and each of the perspectives questions the notion of truth in a similar way like the contradictory narratives in the classical Japanese movie “Rashomon” (1950) by Akira Kurosawa (Cooper 8). To make every story distinctive and reveal its subjectivity, Yimou colors them in red, blue, white, and green. The viewers never find out how exactly did Nameless get in the palace, whether he actually killed the assassins or just took part in their conspiracy. Either way, all these versions of the legend are nothing but a prelude to a climax event in the cinema – the birth of the hero.

1:31:51 − in the shot, we see the army marching and carrying the body of Nameless covered with a red flag. The bright red cloth is centered, surrounded by the figures of soldiers who carry the dead warrior on their shoulders. The director plays on contrasts – the large central element (the body of Nameless) is contrasted with the countless smaller figures, e.g., soldiers’ heads and spears, that form a visual pattern. The specific meaning in the shot is given to the color. Black/gray is associated with the King of Qin’s palace. It seems that when showing the sequence in this color, Yimou not simply completes the full circle by bringing viewers back to where the movie began, but also affirms the power, authority, and invincibility of the king and the state. At the same time, red symbolizes victory. It refers viewers to the earlier scenes in the film when Flying Snow asks the old teacher to wave the yellow flag in case Nameless fails the plan, and red – if he succeeds. Flying Snow saw the yellow flag, while the King of Qin covered the body of Nameless with the red one proclaiming own triumph.

1:31:52 – 1:31:54 − during the three-second shot, viewers see Flying Snow hugging Broken Sword in close-up. Although the characters were lovers, they also represent two opposing views on the King of Qin’s reign. While Broken Sword believed he could bring peace to the conflicting kingdoms, Flying Snow wanted to revenge him. Therefore, the shot is not merely endowed with a pure romantic meaning but symbolizes the reconciliation between two opposing views. The color of the shot is white. It denominates the deaths of the characters and is implemented in contrast with the black sequences showing the palace (Stafford par. 4).

1:31:55 – 1:32:02 − after the close-up shot, we see the same white figures on the background of the desert view. The view expands far in the distance in a way that viewers cannot perceive its end. In combination with the white color and the symbolism of death, the shot transmits an elevated feeling. It contrasts and transcends the coffin-like confinement of the black sequences and, in this way, brings us beyond political games, warfare, and violence. It may be the illustration of the unity of all “under heaven” in which Black Sword believed.

1:32:03 − we see hundreds of arrows stuck in the doors of the palace. In the middle of the rhythmic pattern formed by them, there is a gap reminding the shape of the human body. This open space in the midst of the forest of arrows is affirmative of courage, endurance, faith, and individuality as such because it shows that Nameless did not fear to take the death from the hands of faceless archers, to sacrifice his life for better future of the whole nation, and forgive the King for the pain his political endeavors caused to ordinary people.

“Hero” is more than a simple martial-arts movie. It is an elevated and sophisticated drama about duty, honor, and love. The final scenes reveal the confrontation of the mind and the will of both the King of Qin and Nameless. Although it seems that, after all, the king is the one who remains victorious, the death of the main character speaks volumes. The self-sacrifice of Nameless, as well as other warriors, presents the essence of the movie and holds the major idea. It demonstrates that, however cruel it may be, the life of an individual, his or her pain, desires, and losses are nothing in comparison to the interests of the empire. This truth can be understood only by an authentic warrior – a hero.

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Works Cited

Cooper, Nick. “Hero.” Film Education, Web.

Stafford, Roy. “Hero (China/Hong Kong 2002) – Narrative Analysis.” The Case for Global Film, 2008, Web.

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